Belgian offshore wind lab spearheads wind ambition

Joint initiative aims to foster innovation and growth

A singular cold-climate test chamber for large wind turbine components was inaugurated recently in the port of Antwerp, Belgium. The facility forms an integral part of the Offshore Wind Infrastructure Application Lab (OWI-Lab), a joint industry initiative aimed at pooling strengths and know-how to improve offshore wind sector efficiency, reliability and viability.

We got first-hand experience of what -20oC degrees feels like inside the huge chamber for a few minutes. Actual temperatures in there can vary between -60°C and +60°C for testing and verification.

OWI-Lab was designed and built by Sirris, a collective technology research centre for the Belgian industry established 63 years ago with the primary aim of helping companies implement innovations. OWI-Lab has become Sirris’ fourth application lab along other labs specialised in composites, smart coating and micro-fabrication.

Heavy and bulky

The OWI-Lab climate chamber is accommodated inside a large warehouse-type facility with direct access to a deepwater quay. This box-type structure is 10m long, 7m wide and 8m high, and can be accessed via large insulated doors located at the front.

The concrete floor can carry loads of up to 150t, and the available space fits heavy and bulky components like future-size gearboxes rated at 10-12MW. Additional tests will be conducted on key wind turbine components such as transformers, hydraulic units, lubrication units, generators, yaw and pitch systems. Between 30 and 40 so-called test batches are envisaged annually for diverse products brought in by Belgian and other European companies. Depending upon the nature and size of components, such tests might take between one day and two weeks to complete.

Truly impressive is the fact that, inside the climate chamber, a 100-degree temperature variation from +60°C to -40°C can be achieved within one hour. According to OWI-Lab documentation, onshore and offshore turbines are standard-designed for operation within the -10°C to +40°C temperature range. Overall performance of components and systems can be tested and verified for these conditions.

The extended -60°C to +60°C capability provides an additional controlled testing environment for equipment designed for extremely demanding climate conditions like -40°C during winter in Finland and +50°C in the Indian desert. One possible test mentioned during the visit was the cooling down of a gearbox to -40°C and then turning it around with an electric drive to study lubrication performance and other key functions.

Joint initiative

The Belgian companies and research organisations that are part of this joint initiative include 3E, ZF Wind Power Antwerpen, CG Power Systems Belgium, GeoSea (DEME group), technology industry federation Agoria, the Generaties innovation platform, Sirris, and Vrije Universiteit Brussel. The Flemish government has made €4.8m available for the OWI-Lab. This investment also covers additional activities including a mobile floating LIDAR system (FLIDAR) for offshore wind speed measurements, condition and structural health monitoring, and an O&M management and simulation tool for offshore turbines.

OWI-Lab also represents a national network and meeting place for industry and academic institutes fostering wind power R&D and innovation efforts. Two initiatives it launched recently are HighWind, which promotes efficient offshore turbine installation at up to 15m/s mean wind speed, and OptiWind, which provides models and resources for ensuring turbines’ efficient upkeep.

Worth mentioning too is a feasibility study being conducted for a new offshore wind farm test site off the Belgian coast, and integral part of a Flemish government programme called New Industrial Policy. The main project goal is to offer an offshore test site for new foundations and turbines before they become commercially available.

OWI-Lab members aim to establish a strong export-oriented offshore wind power sector that promotes future growth and could create 9,000 new jobs by 2020 in Flanders alone. The present figure is around 6,000 jobs — 40% of which are offshore wind-related. Belgium aims to generate 13% of its energy demand from renewable sources by 2020, with about 1.6GW to be generated by offshore wind.